Research Letter 2.2

TAKING A RISK?

Most people seem to want a life of comfort, health, fulfilment and absence of risk.

Most communities desire to perpetuate their existence and therefore aim at reducing all risks to their members (Bicevskis1982).

... numerous observers ... argue that the American public’s  apparent pursuit of a ‘zero-risk society’ threatens the nations political and economic stability (Slovic 1987).

With such expectations, the events of the past 6 months or so - ‘unthinkable’ corporate crashes, unprecedented animal-disease outbreaks, horrendous terrorist attacks and wrenching boat-people crises - would be even more shocking than otherwise. These events remind us of the need for continual re-examination of our assumptions in relation to the assessment of risk. This applies to emergency managers and landscape managers and, indeed, all those concerned with landscape fires.

Why would an event seem to be ‘unthinkable’ or ‘unprecedented’? Let us look at some of the ‘reasons’ why a risk may appear not to exist in someone’s mind, maybe even in ours!

There is no risk - it does not exist - because:

“I hadn’t realized it existed”. Raising awareness of the possible risk and subsequent danger with which people can become embroiled is a major activity of fire agencies in the fire season. New ways to do this in relation to the values that people hold in rural and urban-edge settings need to be explored so that the people involved can evaluate their risks and the cost of reducing them. Good maps of previous fires available through the web would be a great aid in doing this.

“It hasn’t happened before”. We do know that some events are unprecedented and apparently cannot be foreseen. Who, in 1985 for example, would have forecast that radioactive smoke would be produced by landscape fires around Chernobyl following the nuclear power plant explosion in 1986? (see Dusha-Gudym 1994). More generally: “ ...for hazards arising from an industrial way of life, the past gives no guidance for the future, provides no basis upon which to calculate and quantify risk” (Adam 1998, p.82).

“It won’t happen here” ... because we are outside the susceptible area. This is similar to the above “It won’t happen here” but differs in that the risk may be known to occur somewhere but is considered to be outside reality locally. That ‘it could happen here’ can be illustrated using the occurrence of major earthquakes near Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory. Until 1987 there had been no reported major earthquake in the area (Collins et al. 2001) so 1986 residents could be excused if they thought ‘it won’t happen here’. However, on the 22nd January 1988 three earthquakes of magnitude greater than 6 occurred there at a cost of $1.2 million (Collins et al. 2001). By comparison, the Newcastle earthquake in 1989 had a lower magnitude (5.6) but generated an estimated cost of $4 billion (Collins et al. 2001). Having long recorded histories of past events helps estimate risk.

“I’m invulnerable because the authorities will deal with it” is related to the last attitude. The risk is admitted - a fire may occur for example; it could happen here but it won’t because it will be put out before it gets here. Emergency Services are increasingly warning people that that they cannot rely completely on bushfire fighters to save them and their assets because, under some conditions of fuel, slope and weather, sectors of landscape fires are uncontrollable. Furthermore, there are situations where there may be too many fires for fire brigades to cope with so firefighters may be unavailable. The message here is that fire preparedness by residents through fuel reduction or fuel replacement by a less fire-prone (or non-fire prone) type is a wise precaution in any bushfire-prone area. Residents near the urban edge should have a personal response plan in the event of a major fire. “Absolute safety is not a human right” (Wisner 2001).

“It’s unmeasurable” so it doesn’t exist. Apparently no less a person than Galileo, the famous astronomer, said “Only that which is measurable is real” (Birch 1990, p.149). With such an attitude, it’s possible that some variables are left out of risk analyses. However, not all risk analyses are quantitative.

“It’s so rare it doesn’t count; if it happens, I won’t be here anyway”. While the risk of an event may be extremely rare, it is not zero; if the consequences of the event are extreme, then the risk needs to be taken very seriously. A very low risk with extremely great consequences may represent a much greater threat than a high risk with moderate consequences. The former situation may be approached by considering the vulnerability of people, installations, institutions, economic assets and other values in places like nursing homes, special schools and nuclear reactors, and placing them in the least vulnerable locations. This finds support in Bicevskis (1982) who noted that in cases of rarity “the usefulness of the probabilistic [risk analysis] approach cannot be demonstrated directly”. In general, rare events with potentially horrendous outcomes may be considered within a ‘disaster plan’.

“It’s part of life” so we have dismissed it in our minds. Complacency is perhaps best illustrated by attitudes to safety on our roads according to safety authorities. All fire areas should be considered to be ‘complacency-free zones’.

“The risk has been assessed”. This is an odd attitude in the sense that if ‘the risk has been assessed’ how can it be taken to ‘not exist’? A clue may be taken from a Professor Ron Johnston who has been quoted as saying that: “... is dangerous in that it is used to justify situations which are by no means safe”; he says that “it is misleading because it is based on an inadequate model of scientific knowledge, excludes issues of value and conceals the role of authority” (Bievskis 1982). However, Bievskis (1982) notes that “Risk analysis can make, by far, its largest contribution .. by outlining clearly and as objectively as possible the risk components of available options.”

“I’m invulnerable - I have personal protective equipment”. This effect can be called the ‘superman’ effect (the gender effect here could be relevant!) in which any provision of ‘personal protective shelters’ or ‘fire-safe vehicles’ may engender an attitude of invulnerability among users who then, unwisely, may be prepared to move into dangerous situations. This phenomenon needs further research and discussion while efforts to improve fire-fighter safety continue. Perhaps the effects on people’s estimated and actual safety may be gauged initially by controlled safe exposure, simulations, training and the use of external sensors.

Risk assessment (or risk analysis) is but one tool that can be brought to bear upon a situation. It should not be considered to be the only tool. It can be considered to be a model, a device which helps focus the attention on an issue but which is recognised as incapable of including everything. It is not the ‘be-all and end-all’. There is no ‘zero risk’.

Apart from ‘risk management’ there is ‘core business’ - the positive side of an organization’s activity - the provision of goods and services. There is also ‘opportunity management’ - chance events favouring the prepared mind. Risk assessment (and analysis) is a useful device that needs to be used with care in association with other tools, always with the assumptions, drawbacks and the quality of data behind it, in mind.

Literature

  1. Adam, B. (1998). Timescapes of Modernity. The Environment and Invisible Hazards. Routledge, London.
  2. Birch, C. (1990). On Purpose. New South Wales University Press, Kensington, NSW.
  3. Bicevskis, A. (1982). Unacceptability of acceptable risk. Search 13, 31-34.
  4. Collins, C., Schneider, J. and Scott, G., 2001 - Earthquakes and lifelines in Australia: hazard, vulnerability and risk. APEC Seminar on Earthquake Disaster Management of Energy Supply Systems, September 5-6, 2001, Taipei, Taiwan.
  5. Dusha-Gudym, S.I. (1994). Radioactive forest fires. Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Forest Fire Research, Coimbra, Portugal II, D.42, pp. 1191-1195.
  6. Slovic, P. (1987). Perception of risk. Science 236, 280-285.
  7. Wisner, B. (2001). Capitalism and the shifting spatial and social distribution of hazard and vulnerability. Australian Journal of Emergency Management 16(2), 44-50.

A.Malcolm Gill
October 2001